How Does Music Affect Sleep?

Music is one of the most powerful artistic creations in human history. It can affect people in many different ways and can elicit a huge range of emotions, from sadness to anger to happiness to curiosity to relaxation.

One of the ways that music can affect us most is when it comes to sleep. From the time we are infants and young children, music is commonly used as a tool to soothe us into relaxation and, eventually, to sleep. However, music’s effect on sleep isn’t limited to lullabies for little kids. Rather, people of all ages can use music as a sleep aid. Many people report using music to stimulate and encourage sleep onset, and to block both external and internal sleep disruptions, and several studies have shown that music can indeed be effective in improving sleep quality, whether it be in children, adults, and elderly people.

Some people who use music as a sleep aid have generally healthy sleep patterns, but it is also used as a sleep aid by people with sleep difficulties and disorders. A recent literature review of sleep research found that music can improve sleep in people with both short-term and long-term (chronic) sleep problems, and can be used both to help people fall asleep and to improve their general quality of sleep (ie, the amount of restful, restorative sleep they get.) Music is particularly attractive as a sleep aid for those who experience sleep problems since it is extremely low cost, low impact, and has none of the negative side effects of treatment options like medication.

Why is Music so Effective for Sleep?

There are a number of reasons why music is an effective sleep tool for some people, most of which have to do with the trackable physical and psychological effects it has on our bodies and minds. They include the following:

Using Music to Help You Sleep

Trying out music as a sleep aid is easy: virtually anyone can do it, and it’s pretty much risk-free. However, there are definitely a few things to consider when you’re picking the right music to fall asleep to. For some people, the most unexpected type of music--say, Norwegian Death Metal--hits the spot perfectly. For most people, though, there are basic guidelines that will point you in the right sleep-music direction.

Best Music for Sleep

  • Tempo/Beat: As mentioned above, the body responds to the tempo and rhythm of music, and often adjusts autonomic functions, like heart rate and breathing, to match the music. That’s why music is generally the most helpful as a sleep aid when it has a tempo that’s close to the body’s sleeping heart rate, which is about 60 beats per minute (or BPM). Though this is not exact, studies have found that music with a BPM in that range is statistically more likely to help sleep. If you’re not sure how many beats per minute a song has, enter the title and artist into this site to find out.
  • Words: The general consensus is that it is better to listen to music without words than with words, and that music with unfamiliar or complicated lyrics should be especially avoided as a sleep aid. This is because for most people,  listening to and processing the words tends to be more distracting and engaging than relaxing. Though some people have no trouble falling asleep to music with lyrics, even if they are new or complex, it is recommended that most people start with lyric-less music or music with extremely simple lyrics.
  • Emotional Attachment: Music can evoke many feelings and many memories. Often, we attach specific memories and emotions to songs that mean something to us from our past. One of the reasons for this effect is that, among other things, music stimulates the hippocampus, the area of the brain that handles memory. If a song, album, artist, or genre has an emotional resonance and associated memories that are particularly heavy, and especially if they’re sad or troublesome, you should avoid that song as nighttime music. For instance, if a song reminds you of an erstwhile ex because they put it on a mixtape, you should probably leave it for waking hours. On the other hand, if a song has very pleasant, soothing emotions and/or memories attached to it, it can be particularly helpful in promoting relaxation.

As aforementioned, depending on the individual person, certain genres of music may work better than others as a sleep aid. Some studies have found that one of the major deciding factors for how well a specific genre of music works is a person’s personal preferences: in other words, music a person likes tends to have a more beneficial effect on the brain.

However, individual genres have also been explored when it comes to their unique pros and cons as sleep aid music.

Classical Music: Classical music with strings, minimum brass and percussion, and a slower tempo has been shown to be particularly useful as a sleep aid. Classical music has been shown to lower blood pressure more than other tested genres (including pop and jazz), and to reduce insomnia symptoms. One study found that works by Brahms, Handel, Mozart, Strauss, Bach, and Chopin were all specifically effective as sleep aids because they incorporated rhythms, tones, and tempos that slowed breathing and brainwaves. If you’re looking to pick the right classical music for sleep, it’s important to skip large orchestral pieces with a lot of percussion and dramatic soft-to-loud transitions. More restrained solo pieces, especially piano, classical guitar, and string instrument pieces, are better for relaxation and sleep.

Jazz Music: Jazz music, particularly soft or mellow jazz, can also be very useful as a sleep aid. Many studies have been conducted on the positive health effects of listening to jazz music. Slow jazz has been shown to be particularly useful in inhibiting the production of noradrenaline, a stress-related brain chemical that impedes sleep. Listening to jazz can also lower the heart rate, and open up blood vessels by as much as 30 percent (which lowers blood pressure.) Additionally, listening to jazz may reduce the intensity and duration of migraine and general headaches, as well as other forms of chronic pain, all of which get in the way of a good night’s sleep. Artists like Miles Davis, Chet Baker, John Coltrane, and Antonio Carlos Jobim all have selections that are perfect for sleep music.

Chill Out/Ambient: Ambient music, and specifically its sub-genre, “chill-out”, is a generally wordless genre of relaxing soundscapes designed primarily for relaxation. Studies have shown that ambient music is also very effective as a sleep aid. Ambient music tends to have very long tracks or tracks that blend seamlessly into one another, which is particularly beneficial for relaxation and sleep since it’s less likely to distract you. At times, ambient music also incorporates nature sounds, which can be particularly soothing.

Soft Pop or Indie: Though it is generally suggested that problem sleepers try music without words as a sleep aid, soft, gentle pop and indie music is used quite frequently, and, for the right person, can also be very effective. Pop and indie music with relaxing, simple, and/or soothing lyrics, no loud percussion or harsh tonal switches, and--most importantly--a tempo around 60 BPM, is the best sort of music in these genres for sleep. In a number of studies, songs by artists like Coldplay, Ed Sheeran, and Brian Eno have been frequently cited as the most commonly used sleep music.

Additional Pointers for Music and Sleep

  • Don’t fall asleep with headphones or earbuds on. Many of us listen to music with earbuds or headphones in during the day, and you might be tempted to do so while you sleep as well. This may seem harmless, but can pose some serious health risks. If earbuds or headphones are wired, the wire has the potential to wrap around your neck as you shift in your sleep. In addition, keeping earbuds in your ear for an entire night can cause significant wax build-up, as well as soreness from consistent pressure. Sleeping with earbuds in may also just be uncomfortable to the point where it may wake you up, defeating the whole purpose of using music as a sleep aid.
  • Make music a consistent part of your routine. Like many tools for sleep, listening to music works best if you make it a consistent, regular part of your nighttime routine. As your body begins to associate relaxing music with sleep, the effectiveness of the music as a sleep aid will increase.
  • Remember that it takes time to fall asleep. Even in the case of people with healthy sleep patterns, it often takes quite a bit of time to actually drift off to sleep. This is especially true when it comes to people who have sleep difficulties. That’s why you should come to bed equipped with enough music to see you off for the night. Ideally, you should have at least 45 minutes to an hour’s worth of music queued up and ready to go. The last thing you want is to have to get up and restart the playlist or choose new songs.
  • Pay attention to how you feel, and don’t be afraid to experiment. You might not find the right sleep music the first time you try. A specific song, album, artist, or even genre might not do the trick for you when it comes to helping with sleep. That’s okay! Don’t get discouraged. One tip for finding your sleep music is to think about the music that relaxes you in non-bedtime contexts and work forward from there. Or, you can just improvise and see if various other types of music work.
  • Don’t ignore the rest of your sleep routine and environment. Remember that music is not a magic bullet, and needs to be used as one tool in a larger toolbox when it comes to healthy sleep. Make sure the place where you sleep at night is conducive to relaxation. Invest in a high-quality mattress, and keep your sleep area dark, set at a comfortable temperature, and free of intrusive noise. You should also make sure to maintain good sleep hygiene. This means doing your best to get to bed with enough time to get a healthy amount of sleep (in adults, that’s at least 7 to 9 hours before you have to get up), and trying to get to sleep at approximately the same time each night. It also means maintaining a nightly routine (for instance, stretching, brushing your teeth, putting on your PJs, and doing any other before-bed activities in a specific order), staying away from caffeine, alcohol, and large meals in the hours before bed, and limiting screen time in bed as much as possible.

Best Music Apps for Sleep

Using music as a sleep aid has become increasingly popular, and, like so many other things, there’s an app for that! Or, rather, a number of apps. Many sites have popped up with apps designed to help you sleep using music. Here are our top picks:

Relax Melodies App

Relax Melodies: This app has ambient melodies and sounds engineered to match the rhythm of sleep and help the listener unwind, relax, and drift off. It also has optional guided meditations, which can redirect you if you’re feeling all of the pressures and stresses of the day flood into your mind as you try to fall asleep. Relax Melodies also has a sister app that focuses on traditional Asian music.

Calm App

Calm: The Calm App is primarily focused on relaxation and sleep. Their music section has entire playlists that incorporate many different genres of music, all of which are carefully curated to help you fall asleep and stay asleep. Calm also has a number of very cool additional features, including guided meditations, nature sounds, and uber relaxing sleep stories read by celebrities like Matthew McConnehegh and Stephen Fry.

Pzizz App

Pzizz: Pzizz uses specially selected music and soundscapes to create a sleep environment that works for you. Their algorithm generates a slightly different soundtrack each night, which is similar enough to keep your body acclimated but not totally identical (so you don’t get bored.)

Inscape App

Inscape: Inscape offers a wide selection of atmospheric music, as well as progressive relaxation programs that use music to help you get to sleep. The app also allows you to choose a focus (for instance, insomnia) and gives you a list of goals to target with music-based relaxation and meditation.

Spotify App

Spotify: As one of the most commonly used music apps, Spotify has a lot going for it--including a huge range of specially curated sleep playlists made by people from around the world. Spotify also has a sleep timer, which lets you choose how long you want the music to play before shutting off.

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